Monday, 24 August 2015

Girls 'n' books

Lately I've been thinking about the representation of female characters in novels - please, don't groan, I'm going to refrain from tub-thumping as much as possible.

No, I haven't been thinking about it in a totally obsessive-because-I-have-nothing-else-to-do kind of way - more a gentle meandering of my thoughts into this general direction. And why wouldn't I think about it? I am a woman after all - it's sort of natural to consider how women are portrayed in novels.


Image courtesy of taesmileland at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Which brings us to that most dreaded of topics - the Bechdel test - first used to gage the levels of female representation in films. That isn't to say that if a film - or a book, TV show, whatever - fails the Bechdel test then it's sexist. That's simply untrue. Going back to films for example, Avengers: Assemble is generally thought to have failed the Bechdel test - but it rocks. And Black Widow rocks - she is a complex female character and a f**king inspiration! And if anyone calls this film, or Black Widow, sexist, I will have to subject them to a re-education process that will be long and arduous.

I personally don't like using Bechdel to gage individual films or novels because it reduces things which may be totally beautiful and meaningful in so many ways to a simple arbitrary test. But, I think that it is important to use the Bechdel test over a range of data - so long as we understand that this is just one of a variety of tools we can use for analysis. This is because it shows the bigger picture - yes, it's fine for an individual book or film to fail the Bechdel test, but if they all fail it? Perhaps it says something, perhaps it doesn't - but it raises the point, and the point probably needs to be raised.

So, what about the books that I've reviewed in the last six months? How do the novels and graphic novels (non-fiction is a different kettle of fish, they're slightly restrained by fact,) fare against Bechdel?

The Bechdel test has three parts:

1. Are there two or more named female characters? (The waitress who takes an order and does nothing else, for example, doesn't count.)

2. Do they ever speak to each other?

3. Do they ever speak to each other about something that isn't a male character, or boys/men/male characters in general? (In other words, do they have their own motivations, or are they just there to complement the men?)

Here's how the (fiction) books I've reviewed since about March hold up (although, in fairness, I couldn't remember all the details so I apologise for any mistakes or vagueness):

Prince of Shadows by Rachel Caine

Two or more female characters? Yep, definitely.
Do they talk to each other? Check.
About something other than blokes or male characters? If they do, I can't remember it. I'm not saying they didn't... but they can't have had too many conversations that were non-dude-related.

Genju No Seiza vol 1 by Matsuri Akino

 Two or more female characters? Umm... I can remember one... was there? I remember one female character, but couldn't honestly tell you whether there were any more. Maybe there was a female ghost? I don't know.

The Shape Stealer by Lee Carroll

Two or more female characters? Yes, there were.
Do they talk to each other? Yep.
About something other than dudes? Urrrmmm, they might've talked about fairies? Or music? Or musical fairies? Ooh! Yeh, there was a fairy-themed discussion, some talk of time-line shenanigans, and questions about a female lover (extra points for diversity!) Bechdel safely passed.
 
NOS4R2 (NOS4A2) by Joe Hill

Two or more female characters? Yes, definitely. And they rocked.
Do they talk to each other? Yep, quite a lot.
About something other than dudes? Yep, I can think of several conversations. Bechdel test passed with flying colours.

Love is Blind by Kathy Lette

Two or more female characters? Yeh.
Do they talk to each other? Yep.
About something other than blokes? Ummm... not really. Not that I remember anyway. They talked about moving to Australia... but that was to meet dudes...

Cross by James Patterson

Two or more female characters? Yep.
Do they talk to each other? They might... maybe.
About something that isn't men? Probably not - though they might've snuck in a request for coffee or something somewhere.

The Witch's Daughter by Paula Brackston

More than one female character? Yeh, quite a few actually.
Do they talk to each other? Yep, a lot.
About something that isn't blokes? Yeh - they definitely talk about magic and things like that. Bechdel test fully passed.

Under the Never Sky by Veronica Rossi

More than one female character? Yes
Do they talk to each other? Yup.
About something that isn't men? I think they talk about music... and there may've been one or two other conversations... so yes. Bechdel passed.

A Dreadful Murder: The Mysterious Death of Caroline Luard by Minette Walters

More than one chick? Yup.
Talk to each other? Ummm... I think they might've once... not sure... couldn't confirm or deny to be honest.

Diary of a Wimpy Vampire by Tim Collins

Two or more female characters? Yes.
Do they talk to each other? I think they do.
About something other than men? Possibly. There may've been something about chores or school, but I'm not positive.

Doctor Sleep by Stephen King

Two or more female characters? Yep, practically falling from the rafters compared to a lot of novels.
Do they talk to each other? Again, there's no shortage.
About a topic which isn't dudes? Yes - and often. Bechdel test thoroughly passed.

Bloody Valentine by James Patterson

Two or more females? Yes.
Do they talk to each other? Uhhhhh... yeh actually, they do.
About something that isn't men? A murder investigation. Check. Bechdel (surprisingly) passed.

Shiver by Maggie Stiefvater

Two or more chicks? Check.
Do they talk to each other? Yeh, they do.
About something that isn't blokes? Gallery openings, dinner, school, taking a trip together... yup and yup. Bechdel passed easily.

Sweet Evil by Wendy Higgins

Two or more females? Yeh, can think of at least four or five.
Do they talk to each other? Yes, throughout.
About something other than men? Angels, demons, nuns, nail polish... I'd say that covers it. Bechdel swum through with ease.

Printer's Devil Court by Susan Hill

Two or more girls/women? Yes, I can think of two.
Do they talk to each other? No, they never actually meet. Bechdel failed.

Diary of a Wimpy Vampire: Prince of Dorkness by Tim Collins

More than one female? Yes, there are.
Do they talk to each other? ...I think they might once or twice.
About something other than men or a male character? I don't actually think so. Bechdel failed (unless my memory is tricking me.)



I'm actually quite surprised at how well some of these novels did - 8/16 passed outright, 6/16 probable but unconfirmed fails, 2/16 confirmed fails.

That's a 50% pass - I was expecting a lot worse! That's not to say that this says anything about the quality of the novels, or the way that women are portrayed in them - but it certainly makes for some interesting data! What about your recent reads? You may be surprised by the results you come up with.




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